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  • Dan Connors

Is celebrity worship making us downgrade friends and neighbors?

Celebrity Nation: How America Evolved into a Culture of Fans and Followers

"Fame is a by-product. Fame is something that should happen because you do work that speaks to people and people want to know about your work. Unfortunately, the personality of people has taken over from the work and the artistry and it's this thing now that stands on its own. I don't think one should ever aspire to being famous" Madonna

What is the number one goal of youth in the 21st century? According to polls, the majority of them want to be famous. They want to be influencers. Many are caught on the social media treadmill desperately churning out photos, videos, and other content in the hopes of attracting followers. Having followers is the new currency in 21st century social media stardom. But what are these people famous for doing?

Celebrity Nation is a fascinating look into the world of celebrity, from its beginnings up to the pressure-filled world that exists today. Landon Jones was an editor for People Magazine in its early days, and he had a front seat at the celebrity crazes of the day- Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson. From the tabloid 1980's to the tech 2020's, there has been an explosion in both the number and power of celebrities over the rest of us non-celebrated folks.

People magazine came before the internet, and so it lived and died based on which celebrity was on the cover at news stands. Princess Diana was their most popular subject, and Jones freely admits that young, rich, and pretty folks were much more likely to get coverage. TV stars outranked movie stars and musicians, and politicians were poison for sales. The majority of their celebrity coverage revolved around redemption stories, telling how this or that celebrity overcame illness, addiction, or abuse. And people ate it up.

Being a celebrity is very much like making a product. Their name is their brand, as is their image, clothing, lifestyle, and now, social media posts. Stars can be obsessive about staying on-brand and getting attention, and can lose themselves to drugs or narcissism very easily without something to ground them in reality.

Jones's main concern about our obsession with celebrity is that it makes us all self-absorbed narcissists and robs our communities of kindness, empathy, and connection. To be a celebrity one needs to stand out from the crowd, which means adopting the selfish obsessions of conspicuous consumption, perfect looks, and being "special". Unfortunately, most of us humans are flawed and not special enough to get a million followers, so there is a limit to how famous we can get. Plus even those who get there have to give up a huge piece of who they are to look the part.

Another concern about the rise of celebrity culture is that it glamorizes the wrong thing. There are too many celebrities and influencers whose only accomplishment is learning to play the game better than others. Plus looking hotter than most doesn't hurt. True heroes, those with actual accomplishments like astronauts, scientists, first responders, or inspirational leaders are lost in the crowd. Kim Kardashian has over 362 million followers, while Anthony Fauci gets hate mail. Celebrities are admired because they tell us what we want to hear, while heroes do the hard, important stuff that has to get done.

Jones dives into the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. His rise in the world of politics is due largely to his celebrity and personality, and his savvy in using social media to his advantage is being watched and copied by politicians everywhere. But the brand that is Trump is an empty shell, hiding an enormous ego and lack of interest in accomplishing anything in particular other than building his name. He is the textbook narcissist.

The book covers the dark side of celebrity with stories of ones that he's met or covered. While working hard to reach celebrity status, many stars regret the problems that come with it, like the fickle nature of the public, paparazzi chasing them at private events, phone threats, security concerns, and stalkers that loom over them and their children. It's a difficult trade-off, and one of the reasons that Jones claims celebrities die younger than the average person.

The book covers some of the areas of celebrity culture I barely knew existed or have been avoiding. Podcasting is now a popular avenue for celebrities to get their name and opinions out there. Cameo is a service where you can pay money for a celebrity to make a personalized video recording for you of a few minutes. (Gilbert Gottfried made over $2 million). Eventually many celebrities write memoirs and autobiographies, and these books often outsell those by established authors doing unique material.

The creepiest part of the book was the story of Miquela, a popular Instagram influencer who is 100% artificial intelligence. She has over 3 million followers and a convincing story, realistic photos, and popular songs on her site, all curated by a private company. Miquela, (aka @lilmiquela), claims to be 19 and admits to being fake, but somehow her followers love her even more for it. They are comfortable interacting and caring about a totally fake creation that can post content 24/7 about her fake life.

The book ends with the hopes that heroes can make a comeback, and presents some celebrities like Volodimir Zelensky, Greta Thunberg, Dolly Parton, and Michelle Obama that are trying to make a real difference in the world. Celebrity can be used for good, but the narcissistic requirements to get there attract ego-driven prima donnas who care for little beyond their carefully curated world. People have a love/hate relationship with celebrities. We love to follow their personal lives and aspire to live like them, but we also find pleasure in their mistakes and downfalls, because we are also secretly jealous of them.

I enjoyed this book and it gave me food for thought. I will still pay some attention to celebrity culture because how can you not? But I will try to pay more attention to the non-celebrities that I meet out in the real world, because they are just as worthy as movie stars, and just as human as most social media influencers.

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